Nine Queens, a splendid new film from Argentina about a couple of grifters who team up for a day and night of swindles in Buenos Aires, is as tricky and satisfying as any of David Mamet’s airless cinematic shell games. Mamet’s films are all plot and no atmosphere; this one has a squalid, urban-greed-meets-the-gutter mood that lends its filigreed cleverness an unusually resonant kick. From the moment that Juan (Gastón Pauls), a young hustler with the baby-faced cool of Antonio Banderas, is rescued from the cops by Marcos (Ricardo Darín), a 40ish, cultivated fellow with a black tie and goatee that make him look like a jazz- beatnik version of Mephistopheles, we believe in our guts that these are real, devious, scrambling guys. They’re not just lightweight movie con artists.
Marcos and Juan use the power of suggestion to prey on people’s weaknesses, but since they’re operating in a culture of boundless avarice, they have to keep improvising, dancing in the moment, kicking the con up to higher notches. Directed with tensile voyeuristic flair by Fabián Bielinsky (it’s his first feature), ”Nine Queens” is a caper movie with an implicit, despairing vision of Argentina, yet its ambience of authenticity works on pure edge-of-the-moment dramatic terms as well. Marcos, a veteran viper, is proud of his amoral savoir faire, and Ricardo DarÍn, in a memorable performance, gives him a desperation and even a hint of sadness that mark him as one of the most haunting of movie con men.
As Marcos shows the not-so-naive Juan the ropes, the two try to palm off a forged edition of a rare sheet of stamps — the Nine Queens — for $450,000. The movie gets you laughing at their cleverness, and also at their susceptibility. It may not be an accident that the forces of fate keep trying to do to Marcos what he does to old ladies, wealthy businessmen, even his own family. Like Tom Ripley, he makes lying into an unholy art form. So does ”Nine Queens.”